First Movement: The Textperson
Only what you’ve taken to heart can be given from the heart.
I’m often asked by my friends who are outside my intensely Jewish bubble, “What are you learning to do in rabbinical school?” A good question. I usually launch into a lecture on the knowledge and skills I’m gaining, from curriculum design to fundraising to critical literary analysis of biblical texts and, of course, the fine art of delivering sermons. These are all excellent things to be learning, and will hopefully serve all of us well in our careers as Jewish professionals in one way or another. But I’ve come to realize that there is a better question than “what am I learning to do,” and that is, “who am I learning to be?”
Abraham Joshua Heschel makes a claim for what it should mean to be a Jewish educator. He writes: “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.”
Heschel argues that personality trumps planning when it comes to effective teaching. Who you are is more important than what you teach, because the real learning happens interpersonally. That is to say, “actions speak louder than words”. Of course, we know this, but how often do we realize that we are failing to act in ways that we want others to learn from, and we must resort to using another tired phrase, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Heschel reminds us that we can say until the messiah comes, but others will always learn more from what we actually do.
Characteristically pithy, Heschel’s charge is also incomplete, when we think about ourselves as Jewish professionals. If the personality of the teacher is the true text, where is the place of our actual texts? Surely there are great and profound non-Jewish personalities in the world whose lives are worthy texts of study.
So, what makes a Jewish textperson Jewish? Heschel preceded his call for textpeople with an admonition to teachers which I believe should apply to all Jewish professionals:
[You must be] “either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the promised land, [you] must have been there yourself.”
In other words, you must participate in the Jewish story by internalizing Jewish texts in order to become a Jewish text, only after which you can teach it.
You must take to heart in order to give from the heart.
Second Movement: Ezra’s model of the textperson
Ezra, whom our tradition credits with placing Torah in the center of Jewish life, offers a simple model of what it means to be a textperson.
כִּי עֶזְרָא הֵכִין לְבָבוֹ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-תּוֹרַת יְהוָה וְלַעֲשֹׂת, וּלְלַמֵּד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט.
Ezra 7:10 states that “Ezra had prepared his heart to study the Torah of Adonai and to act; then to teach in Israel laws and rules.”
There are three components to Ezra’s model: First, we must prepare our hearts to study. This allows for internalization. Second, we must do what we have learned, or perhaps make something out of what we have learned. Once we have internalized and become the texts to the point of exuding them in our every action, we are ready for the third stage: to teach among our communities, to guide others in how to live as Jews.
What we have taken to heart flows through our veins and into our actions as we become textpeople for the communities we serve.
Third Movement: Challenges to Internalization of Text
It can be difficult to follow Ezra’s steps. I’m reminded of the hassidic comment on the phrase from v’ahavta: v’hayu hadvarim haeileh…al levavecha.” Why does it say you should put these words on your heart and not in your heart? Because sometimes the heart is not ready to take the words in, so we place the words on it for some future moment when we are ready to internalize the words.
What prevents us from taking our texts to heart? What limits our investment in living out the messages we read in our texts?
A number of possibilities come to mind that might distance us from our texts. Language, for example – years of studying Hebrew can entice you into contemplating deeply ancient biblical texts or modern Israeli poetry, but how many of us relish entering the maze of Talmudic Aramaic? It’s hard to internalize a text whose meaning eludes you in the twists and turns of foreign grammar.
Or perhaps the lens of critical scholarship has magnified scribal errors, unsavory ancient attitudes, or false facts behind true myths one too many times to take the text into your heart naively. The scholars Joshua Kulp and Jason Rogoff describe the authors of our sacred texts as architects building a conceptual world, and Kulp and Rogoff depict critical scholars as archaeologists, stripping back each layer of the textual building trying to understand the craftsmanship and context that informed the builder. But if we spend too much time being archaeologists, what is it that we are building for ourselves?
Or perhaps we simply don’t care enough. There are a lot of worthy endeavors in our world, and investing time to study and internalize what can be difficult texts just isn’t always a priority, even in a Jewish seminary.
Or perhaps we do care, but the text seems not to. We care about marriage equality and are confronted with lines from Leviticus. We care about gender equality and find again and again statements made by almost exclusively male sages dictating the proper role of women.
I acknowledge these challenges because becoming a textperson is not easy. The Reverend James Lawson said once that the Bible has stories with conflicting morals because it demands that we have agency, that we continue to exercise choice even when we study our most sacred scriptures. The ability to choose and study and internalize some texts in our canon but not others can put into question the integrity of the process. Picking and choosing sounds arbitrary, yet that is what Jewish textpeople throughout the ages have always done. Editing, interpreting, expanding and limiting, focusing, zooming in as Dusty taught us last week, the Jewish textperson recognizes that the heart is only so big and the tradition is beyond vast. Picking and choosing is not a violation of the integrity of Jewish tradition but in fact its very fulfillment. When we internalize the text, when we (1) study, (2) enact, and (3) teach, we also make the text our own and, most critically, take responsibility for it.
We give from the heart what we take to heart. What we take to heart will surely transform us. And just as surely, we will also transform the texts that settle in our heart through the ongoing revelation of interpretation. Choose wisely those texts with which you can open up this mutual conversation.
Fourth Movement: Jeremiah’s model for a textperson
Now, picking and choosing implies a level of intentionality that I think is sometimes misleading. More often than not, the texts that will transform your lives as you digest them initially appear before you unanticipated. The prophet Jeremiah describes this occurrence (Jer. 15:16):
נִמְצְאוּ דְבָרֶיךָ, וָאֹכְלֵם, וַיְהִי דְבָרְךָ לִי לְשָׂשׂוֹן וּלְשִׂמְחַת לְבָבִי: כִּי-נִקְרָא שִׁמְךָ עָלַי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת.
Nimtz’u devarecha – God’s words were found. The odd passivity here indicates both that Jeremiah was not anticipating this textual discovery, but also that the words were not forced on him – he chooses what happens next.
Va’ochleim – Jeremiah chooses to consume these words, or more simply, he eats them. Is there a more vivid metaphor for internalization? Once these words are found by Jeremiah, he puts them inside himself and begins to digest them.
Vayhi devarcha li l’sason ul’simchat levavi – And as Jeremiah digests these words, they reach his heart and make it rejoice. How do you know you have become a text person? When your heart rejoices in the texts you have internalized.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Jeremiah explains that his happiness comes from the result of his consumption of divine devarim, which is that God’s name is now called upon him. It’s an unusual phrase, but seems to mean that having internalized God’s words, Jeremiah is now publically associated with God’s name, and consequently God’s mission.
So how do you know you have become a text person? When your heart rejoices in the texts you have internalized which have given you a mission, that is, a way of life or a task in life.
But even that isn’t the end of the story. The very next verse, Jeremiah 15:17, reads: “I have not sat in the company of revelers and made merry! I have sat lonely because of Your hand upon me, for you have filled me with gloom.” What?? Mere seconds ago we were witnessing Jeremiah’s joy, and now the very same cause – the words he consumed which led him to his mission – leaves him lonely and filled with gloom! So how do you know you have become a text person? When not only do you rejoice in your mission, but you endure the inevitable costs, conflicts, and consequences of being the change agent that being a textperson entails.
Only by taking to heart the most important words you find in your lifetime, will you be able to keep giving from a heart that may sometimes feel broken.
Coda: Terumah – The give and take of a textperson
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה: מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.
God speaks to Moses: Take gifts for Me from each person whose heart is generous.
The rabbis argue that giving does not require that giving must come from the heart. The system of tzeddakah, after all, is predicated on obligation, not charity. Obligatory giving envisions systemic justice, and disciplined individuals who comprise a just society. But Parshat Terumah speaks to the textperson, and understands that for the textperson, generosity flows from nourishment, not just discipline.
We as Jewish professionals understand that obligation is a cornerstone in the conversation of Jewish community, but we must also remember that obligation piles words onto our hearts, not into them. We must remember to follow Ezra’s example and act not because we are obligated, but because we have prepared our hearts when studying the texts that will shape our actions. We must consume text like Jeremiah consumed God’s word, we must allow our Jewish texts into our hearts, and we must then take on our unique missions that will bring us both joy and pain.
So when you are asked, “what is it that you are learning at Hebrew Union College”, I encourage you to say, “I’m learning to be me.”
And when you’re asked to clarify what it means to be you, perhaps you might say, “I, as a Jewish professional, am learning how to give my unique gifts from the heart, because I have taken the Jewish texts that I have found and struggled with and consumed and loved… I have taken those texts to heart.”